Voting rights groups launch court battle over new Kansas congressional map

By: - February 14, 2022 9:58 am

Thomas Alonzo says during a Jan. 24, 2022, news conference at the Kansas Statehouse that the congressional map endorsed by GOP leaders “demonstrates a lack of competent, moral and ethical leadership.” (Sherman Smith/Kansas Reflector)

TOPEKA — The American Civil Liberties Union of Kansas and Loud Light filed two separate lawsuits Monday arguing the congressional map endorsed by a GOP supermajority in the Legislature intentionally violates constitutional rights of Democrats and communities of color.

Republicans passed a map that divides the Kansas City metro area in an obvious attempt to make it harder for the state’s only Democrat in Congress, Rep. Sharice Davids, to hang onto her 3rd District seat. Last week, two-thirds of the Senate and House voted to override a veto by Democratic Gov. Laura Kelly and preserve the map, known as Ad Astra 2.

The map places the area of Wyandotte County north of Interstate 70, a majority minority community, into the 2nd District. The infusion of Democratic votes into the 2nd District is offset by carving Lawrence out of Douglas County and placing it in the heavily Republican 1st District, which stretches to the Colorado border.

“The map that was passed shows that the Legislature was intentionally trying to silence our collective voice,” said Tom Alonzo, a Kansas City resident who lives north of I-70 in Wyandotte County. “There is nothing just or democratic about it. My community is the most diverse in Kansas — and they want to dilute us so we have no voice.”

A map produced by Republicans in the House and Senate would place Lawrence in the 1st District, which stretches to the Colorado border, and split Wyandotte County between 2nd and 3rd districts. (Submitted)

The ACLU filed a lawsuit in Wyandotte County District Court on behalf of seven Wyandotte County residents, including Alonzo, three Johnson County residents and one Lawrence resident. The Campaign Legal Center is working with the ACLU on the lawsuit, along with pro bono assistance from the Arnold & Porter Kaye Scholer law firm.

Kansas-based nonprofit Loud Light, with support from national voting rights attorney Marc Elias’ Democracy Docket, also filed a lawsuit in Wyandotte County.

The lawsuits ask the court to declare the Ad Astra 2 map invalid, set a deadline for lawmakers to pass an acceptable map, draw a map in place of lawmakers if they fail to meet the deadline, and make the state pay for attorney fees and court costs. Both lawsuits name Wyandotte County election officer Michael Abbott and Kansas Secretary of State Scott Schwab as defendants.

The legal challenges were widely anticipated. State lawmakers are tasked with drawing new maps for congressional and legislative districts every 10 years, based on census results. For months, a coalition of advocacy groups complained about the way Republicans in the Legislature handled the process.

The ACLU lawsuit twice references Kansas Reflector’s reporting in October 2020 of former Senate President Susan Wagle openly saying new congressional maps could be drawn to prevent a Democrat from winning office if Republicans gained the supermajority necessary to override a veto from the governor.

In late July, Republicans in charge of the redistricting process scheduled a series of town hall discussions on short notice, before U.S. Census data had been released. They responded to criticism by holding virtual listening sessions in November, including one that coincided with a special session.

Republican leaders revealed their congressional map shortly after the session opened in January. Residents were given little time to prepare testimony for hearings two days later, and both chambers passed the map in less than a week despite hearing overwhelming opposition from residents.

The Loud Light lawsuit references Kansas Reflector’s reporting on the House debate, when Rep. Steve Huebert, R-Valley Center, said gerrymandering and partisan politics “are just things that happen.”

Elias responded in a Jan. 25 tweet: “Litigation is ‘just a thing that happens’ too.”

In 2020, Susan Wagle, a Republican who was then president of the Kansas Senate, said Republicans could redraw self-serving legislative and congressional districts as long as they have a two-thirds majority in the Statehouse to override a veto by Gov. Laura Kelly. (Sherman Smith/Kansas Reflector)

Sharon Brett, legal director for the ACLU of Kansas, said lawmakers rushed the redistricting process without interest in gathering meaningful feedback from those they represent.

“It’s always shocking when you see elected officials completely ignore their constituents and the will of the people in the state of Kansas, and choose to put partisan games over doing what’s right and fair by the state,” Brett said. “So although it is not surprising how this has played out, it is still shocking nonetheless. And that’s a choice the Legislature made. Now they have to defend that choice in a court of law.”

Senate President Ty Masterson, R-Andover, has repeatedly dismissed complaints about the obvious impact of the map on Democrats and communities of color.

“I’m very comfortable defending this in court,” he said during debate in the Senate before voting to override the governor’s veto. “It is fair. It does meet the guidelines. It is good for Kansans. We did listen to the people, and that’s what will be tested. I’m very comfortable with it.”

Masterson punished three Republican senators who initially opposed the veto override by stripping them of committee assignments.

The lawsuits contend the Ad Astra 2 map violates protections in the Kansas Constitution’s Bill of Rights: All political power is inherent in the people, the power of government is for the people’s equal protection and benefit, and the right to suffrage.

“Through manipulation and abuse of legislative procedures, the Kansas Legislature rushed through an extreme and intentional partisan and racial gerrymander of the state’s congressional districts,” the ACLU lawsuit says.

Brett said she rejects the notion that partisan gerrymandering is inevitable.

“I would say this is a really extreme example of having a partisan goal in mind from the very beginning and basically all through the process,” Brett said.

The Loud Light lawsuit says the Cook Political Report concluded every district in the Ad Astra 2 map is favorable to Republicans, who would have a 2-point advantage over Davids in a “toss up” in the new 3rd District.

“By cracking Democratic voters across the state, the Republican supermajority deprived Democrats in Kansas of the fundamental right to equal voting power,” the Loud Light lawsuit says.

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Sherman Smith
Sherman Smith

Sherman Smith is the 2021 and 2022 Kansas Press Association’s journalist of the year. He has written award-winning news stories about the instability of the Kansas foster care system, misconduct by government officials, sexual abuse, technology, education, and the Legislature. He previously spent 16 years at the Topeka Capital-Journal. He is a lifelong Kansan.